Fifa has expanded the World Cup from 32 teams to 48, the first change to the competition’s participation rules since France 1998.
How does it work?
Teams will be split into 16 groups of three, increasing the total number of games played from 64 to 80, with 32 taking part in the first knockout round. To stop teams from colluding to ensure safe passage to that stage, penalty shoot-outs will decide any group match that ends as a draw but they will have to clarify their stance on goal difference and goals scored before that can definitively be ruled out.
How many games will the winner play?
Seven – the same as before.
When will the tournament start?
There’s no set date yet but it’s very likely the World Cup will kick off in the summer of 2026. Mexico were the favourites to host but the scale of the event would put the USA in pole position with the competition due to go to that part of the world as per an unofficial rotation policy around the continents. A final decision will be made in 2020.
Why have they done this?
Fifa president Gianni Infantino insists “the decision should not just be financially-driven” and that he wants this tournament to be more inclusive so that smaller nations can experience the “joy” of a World Cup. But it’s impossible to avoid the financial angle.
Who stands to benefit from it?
With a sceptical hat on, the clear beneficiaries are Fifa. According to their own research, they stand to significantly increase revenue – a 48-team tournament has the potential to increase income by up to £822million more than the £4.5billion revenue forecast for Russia 2018.
The FIFA spin will be that African and Asian nations can expect an increase on their current four qualification spots, diversifying the familiar mix of countries we are usually treated to. It should help Infantino’s next election campaign too.
What is the Irish position?
The FAI were refusing to comment yesterday afternoon but their counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland have welcomed a move that should make it easier for small nations to qualify – even though Europe is only set to get an extra three places which means that some sides who finish second in their qualifying group will still miss out and play-offs are likely to be used as a solution. All those matters will be confirmed in due course but the FAI welcomed the Euros’ expansion to 24 so this is a similar move.
What it’s good for
The argument is that there will be more games on television for everyone to enjoy and the opportunity for smaller nations to experience the thrill of match-up with a world power.
What it’s bad for
Panini sticker albums are going to cost a fortune and the quality of football on show may suffer too. If smaller, less technically competent nations turn out and play for a low score draws to gamble on the lottery of a penalty shoot-out, it could be a long 32 days.